Gio Malatsidze kneels down and carefully brushes sand off the plexiglass lid of his kvevri. Five hundred liters of tavkveri wine have been resting for two years in this large clay vessel buried in the ground. Next to it is an open kvevri of healthy chinuri, also two years old. He gently pries the lid off, sealed with silicone putty, cautious not to let any debris fall inside, and frowns. A white film is floating on the surface. Gio dips a wine glass inside, spreading the flotsam away and takes a sip of the dark plum colored wine, washing his mouth with it. It is on the edge but can be rescued, he explains, dipping a carafe to fill our glasses so we can taste what he is talking about. Making natural wine is a risky business.
Not all wine cellars are in basements. Called marani in Georgian, they are often earth-floored pantries located behind the living room, or they might be in garages, foyers or, in the case of one Tbilisi restaurant, on the eighth floor terrace of an apartment building. Gio’s marani is a small 250-year-old dwelling made of river stone behind the Garikula house his grandfather built some 50 years ago. It is a project, right now more archeological site than wine cellar, with its missing roof tiles, windows and door, yet Gio is making astounding Shida Kartli wine here.
Our first experience with Gio’s wine was two years ago, when we were poured a glass of vivacious shavkapito from the Tedzami Valley label at Vino Underground. Few winemakers bottle this variety, and we were agape to learn someone from our very own Garikula was conjuring such quality. “You don’t know Gio?” Natia, our server, asked incredulously. More peculiar than our ignorance of his wine was Gio’s path to becoming a Kartli winemaker. It started in Florence, Italy.
“I noticed how wine was part of the daily culture there. Not like Georgia where it is mass consumption with friends at supras. In Italy you drink wine with every dinner and different wines go with different dishes,” the 42-year-old former bartender describes.
Around five years ago, he stumbled on YouTube clips about Georgian winemaking and was excited to see there was a growing trend of bottling natural wines. He recalls that before he moved out of Georgia in 2008, the only thing bottled in the country was cheap industrial wine. In 2016, Gio took a trip back home after a long absence, just in time to attend the New Wine Festival in Tbilisi.
“There were so many small family wineries with crazy nice wine. I was shocked there was such good wine from Guria and Racha,” he says.
The next day Gio traveled to his family’s house in Garikula and dove into his dad’s stash of chinuri. Fate had drawn him to new winemaker friends, like Gaioz Sopromadze, who suggested he bottle the chinuri, and Sasha Novikov of Dadi Wine Bar offered to sell it. Although his father was not interested in bottling wine, the seeds of winemaking were planted.
“Ten days later I was back in Italy and had a kind of epiphany. I thought how I want to work for myself and that in Georgia I have the possibility to become a winemaker. In Italy, even with €10 million, you wouldn’t be able to do it. The bureaucracy is impossible,” Gio explains. “Every day I thought about making wine. I even took a sommelier course.”
“I thought how I want to work for myself and that in Georgia I have the possibility to become a winemaker.”
He moved back to Georgia in 2017 and, after much squabbling with his father, replanted the family vineyard with 500 goruli mtsvane and 500 shavkapito vines. Gio also bottled his first vintages: pinot noir, chinuri from vines his grandfather planted in the front yard just after the Second World War when he bought the property, and shavkapito from a local man known as “Uncle Giorgi.” Initially the results were positive, but Gio soon learned about the fickleness of natural wine when bottles that had been fine in May turned to funk in July.
A glutton for knowledge, Gio hit the books and the Internet. He asked wine-growing friends for advice. Anyone can make wine, he learned, but it takes years to be a vigneron. Understanding that the key to winemaking begins with the vines, he flung himself into his vineyard and began rebuilding the marani, adding six kvevri to his grandfather’s original five. On free days, he hung out with natural winemakers and exposed himself to as much wine as possible. He bottled chinuri, pinot noir, shavkapito and tavkveri – all with full skin contact – and brought them to the 2018 New Wine Festival. After the event, he sent half of his shavkapito to Vino Underground where serious wine lovers took notice.
“2018 was the turning point,” Gio says. “I made my decision to be a winemaker. There was no turning back.”
This year started off promising when Gio was invited to participate in a project to bring kvevri to Sicily and make Georgian-style wine with Sicilian grapes. It also looked as if distributors might start placing orders. But then the coronavirus pandemic put a sudden halt to all his business plans. Still, the vineyard never rests, and the family house, like his new career, is a work-in-progress. Gio is a busy man.
“I’m a slave to my work, to my dream. I live to make my wine,” he declares, filling our glasses with his menacingly smooth mint-infused chacha. “If you follow your path, you find your way. I’m happy.”
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